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Excerpts

September 2016: My article, "Pop Muses: Welcoming Fanfiction into the Creative Writing Workshop," is the cover story of this month's Association of Writers and Writing Programs Writer's Chronicle: https://www.awpwriter.org/magazine_media/writers_chronicle_overview

The following are a few excerpts from my books.

From “Vocation,” collected in Unmarriageable Daughters (Lewis-Clark Press):

           
The year Camille turned fifteen, her family moved to Brookline, Massachusetts, and their seventh apartment in her lifetime, and her father found religion.  That was how she thought of it—“finding religion”—as if it were something you could discover suddenly and all at once.  In truth, she would come to know, the signs must have been gathering for quite a while.  Something that had walked in shadow beside her father—perhaps for years—had moved into the light, and it had turned out to be religion.  The way he acted, though, it was as if he’d been showered with a gift, or with a brilliant guest who was in danger of leaving soon, and had to be wooed into staying behind forever.

            This was the year that dreams, for Camille, became a cultivated hobby.  Writing down your lifetime goals, she’d heard, was the first step toward seeing them come true.  So every Sunday, she made a ritual of copying the growing list onto a new page of her bedside notebook:

1)      Get accepted into the corps of the Royal or New York City Ballet by age sixteen;

2)      Take a lover by eighteen;

3)      Get Andrew to notice me by summer’s end,

and so on.  They filled twenty pages by now, slanty cursive lines in green ink.

            This, finally, was the spring she forgot how to sleep.  Sleep came now in dozes just before dawn, or in breathless naps over her homework after dinner.  But her bed at night meant waking terrors.  She could lie rigid for hours, listening one minute to the gravelly cries of a cat in heat down by the trolley tracks, the next to Débussy variations echoing inside her head—the soundtrack to which she and Andrew her ballet teacher danced a duet full of swoops and lifts in the watery, amber light of late afternoon.

*

            When Camille was younger, her father had given her books of Shakespeare and Poe and taught her how to play chess: sitting behind her at the board with one arm around her shoulders, his hand resting on top of hers as she held each piece in turn.  He was walking her through the move, he said, so that she’d get the feel of it—better than if he told her only in words what she should do.

            “Concentrate,” he’d always said.  “For your next move, just do whatever’s least expected.”

            Nowadays, though he was not yet fifty, he’d already taken on an old man’s ways.  He would tip his head back to peer at things through his bifocals and smile when she talked, half-amused.  Or he’d wink at her for no reason—like one morning when she was nodding over breakfast and he asked with a small laugh if she’d had a rough night.

            Then there were the nervous angers.  The time she’d asked if she could borrow some of his caffeine pills and he’d thrown the magazine he was reading to the floor and shouted that no kid of his was going to get started on drugs if he had anything to say about it.  Or the evening he’d come into her bedroom for a book and launched a small tirade about the David Hamilton poster above her bed.  It was a soft-focus shot of a woman in profile bending over, naked from the waist up, to tie her pointe shoe.

            “Katherine!” he had called.  “Come in here.  I want you to see something.”  Her mother had come as far as the doorway, and he’d demanded to know if she was aware of Camille being exposed to this sort of “gauzy pornography,” as he put it.  “Am I to understand we’re paying for these dance classes so they can sell her sex?


Buy Unmarriageable Daughters on Amazon.com
 
 
From the opening of my first novel, I’ll Be a Stranger to You.  IBASTY was a first-place winner in the 2007 Utah Original Writing Competition, sponsored by the Utah Arts Council. It is published as an e-book by Outpost19. See more at http://www.outpost19.com/IBASTY:

In his apartment on Gagarinskii alley, Lucas Tiller was awake too early—once again.  Outside his window, the dawn was an embryo, a pinprick flaw in the velvet drape of sky.

It was October—1998—almost winter.  He had arrived back in Moscow last New Year, so now he had lived half the time here with his wife, Marianne, and half without.  It still seemed strange to wake up alone.  Every morning his eyes flew open hours before the sun.  He sat up, double-paned comforter wrapping his legs.  Marianne had always called it the Russian tamale.  He dozed, forehead resting on his two raised knees.

He felt as if he had been dreaming of Viktor, his old Mormon mission companion.  Ever since Marianne had left, Viktor had been visiting Lucas’s mind, a not-quite-welcome guest, a beautiful pestilence, like the window doves at dawn.  He thought of waking up those mornings, on his church mission half a dozen years before, and seeing at the end of his couch-bed the top of Viktor’s blond head bowed in prayer.  Lucas thought of how Viktor always had to be first in everything.  First another time, too, that one time—just that once, really: the rest doesn’t count—when he’d been bowed over Lucas on the couch-bed until Lucas had begged him, begged in both their languages, to stop.

*

Fall mornings in Moscow.  The sullen faces of the residential slabs, their windows unlit even beneath an overcast sky.  The humped and pitted sidewalks, the mud puddles crackly with their dermis of frost.  A trail of rotting leaves, like the spore of some giant, suffering beast, led to the open-air market at the corner.  The gold-toothed women at the kiosks beamed whether the front pages blared “economic crisis” or not.  They seemed always so delighted to serve you a plastic cup of tea, which you held gingerly between your fingertips at the rim; or a sausage pasty, or a banana.  You could buy cigarettes, or cheeses, or tins of kerosene.  At seven a.m. the bar kiosk opened, and the men leaned on their elbows on the formica table stands, quaffing their Baltikas or gin-and-tonics-in-a-can or their vodka in paper cups.  The chilly air was suffused with the smells of stale tobacco and exhaust fumes from the idling delivery trucks, peat-brown or drab green like the Army vans that also idled in the lot, attended by clusters of uniformed youths with sulky mouths.  But around the square of the market the oaks and birches still shed their slimy leaves, and dogs ran loose and often rutted in the spaces between the kiosks, and at the perimeter of the market, unsheltered, stood a line of old people from the country selling potatoes or carrots, still crusted with dirt, directly from their buckets.

So beneath the chemical burn lay always the smell of earth, one indistinguishable from the other, as if even in this craven and polluted city the richness of the soil still staked the final claim.

 

From the opening of my second novel, Marian Hall, a semifinalist in the 2010 James Jones Novel Fellowship competition:

My whole life has been a matter of returning.  I return to memories, and I return to the actual places those memories recall.  I return to years.  I return to seasons.  I return to November.  It doesn’t matter what year the calendar says.  November is a month apart from any year.

            Return.  Return.  Re-turn the knobs of memory’s same doors.  Re-turn the dials on the viewfinder, and this is the view that it finds.

            A phone shrills on a bedside table.  It’s eleven o’clock on a wet night in a room in a women’s hostel in midtown Manhattan.  The silence hovers tensely now, minute to minute.

           

            I am not the woman in that hostel room, all those years ago.  No, I’m only thinking about her—thinking about her daily, now.  My own room, nowadays, is a private ward in Mercy Hospital.  A space measuring twelve by fifteen, and I am lying propped in a metal-frame bed against pillows constructed in some synthetic fabric that keeps them firm beneath the relentless weight of my back.

            A sash window gives on the parking lot.  On the nightstand beside me is a desk lamp, a telephone with an outside line, a top spiral-bound 8 1/2 by 11 notebook, three ballpoint pens, and a tape recorder.

            I have something I must try to write.  One who has lived a life such as mine must try, anyway, to write it.

            In this room, the walls could use a fresh coat of white paint, and the dull, drizzly light of outside suggests a day that never doffed its bathrobe.  So, on that morning two days ago when I was shown in here, I went ahead at first and indulged a panic, one of those ten-minute flash-fears: lying in the bed, flat and rigid as bone.

            These fears will never leave me altogether, as long as I am here—and I expect to be here quite a while, a regular rest-cure length, though in my case it is more the test-cure: two weeks of tests and of meals on plastic trays.

            The bottom is falling out.  I can feel it.  Over the last five years I had begun to pack it under me: solid soil, layer upon layer of it.  Each year another.  I hadn’t moved.  In five whole years I had not had to move.

            But now it’s crumbling.  I might have known.  Permanence doesn’t come to those like me.  Somehow in the end, dense earth always dries and crumbles to dust.  I feel again that murmur of the heart—the murmur that has always been my real home.

            I do not understand where I am and what I am doing there.

            When I say that, I don’t only mean the hospital.  Though I might try to lay claim to this place by labeling it the country of my youth, in reality it’s nothing more than some medium-sized Massachusetts mill town, at the center of which a river trickles and stalls between stone embankments, clogged with leaves and brambles, exuding burnt-sugar fumes.

            And what an appalling time of year anywhere, when bare branches make querulous shadows on the ceiling, like old blind women who are palpating the furniture to discover where they are.

            But as I think all this and nothing happens, my breathing inevitably calms and becomes regular, and it occurs to me—as it always has, as it has never failed to in any one of these single rooms the last forty years, that there is something in this shabby solitude very much like a bower of freedom.

            Because, after all, the phone has an outside line, and there’s the paper, and there are the pens, and there’s the tape recorder to speak into when my energy flags.

I must try to write it.  Start again—start further back this time.  Return.  Return.  Make the returning worth something at last.